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Myanmar military junta launches conscription and military-age men flee

SANGKHLA BURI, Thailand — Six vans packed with migrants from Myanmar sped through a border town in western Thailand just after dawn.

Lin Soe, 18, was in the second truck, part of an exodus of boys and men fleeing Myanmar because its military junta had begun conscripting soldiers in the face of growing rebel success. He had resisted leaving his country for a long time, but his mother finally told him it was time to leave, he said as he recounted his story.

Tens of thousands of young people flee Myanmar every month since the junta announced in February that for the first time it was implementing a project, according to migration researchers and humanitarian groups.

Stung by a series of battlefield losses to pro-democracy insurgents and rebel ethnic groups, the army is now seeking to recruit up to 60,000 troops within a year. The move, security analysts say, reflects growing anxiety within the military, which faces its biggest challenge since it overthrew a democratically elected government three years ago and sparked a civil war .

Panic gripped families even in urban centers like Yangon, which had been largely spared the airstrikes and battlefield clashes that hit the most remote areas. Overnight, young fathers disappeared from their homes. Mothers packed up their teenage sons and sent them on their way. In some parts of the country, rebel groups have claimed responsibility for the killing of local officials collecting information on potential conscripts.

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Many of those fleeing are morally opposed to fighting for the junta or fear being killed in combat. The luckiest among the fugitives flew out on tourist, student or work visas for other countries. However, far larger numbers have crossed the border, traveling in darkness through the long, porous stretch of jungle that separates Myanmar and Thailand.

Nearly 60 percent of the 120,000 people who entered Thailand in March are undocumented, twice the figure from a year ago, according to the United Nations International Organization for Migration. In Burmese migrant enclaves near Bangkok, the Thai capital, the population of new arrivals has swelled, with young men crowding into airless apartments and sleeping on thin mats on the floor.

Many of those arriving in Bangkok pass through Sangkhla Buri, a serene border town surrounded by rubber plantations, where local authorities say the flow of migrants has increased eightfold since February.

In the past, migrants considered it easy to cross the border here. But for Lin Soe, that wasn’t the case.

Thailand has stepped up its crackdown on undocumented Burmese migrants in recent months and has sent some back, citing its inability to accommodate them in such large numbers. Migrant worker agencies and nonprofit groups estimate that hundreds of Burmese migrants have been deported since the conscription law took effect.

One night in late April, Washington Post journalists joined Thai officials at Sangkhla Buri on a border patrol. After nearly eight hours on hinterland roads, authorities found Lin Soe’s convoy and pursued it. Three of the six trucks escaped but Lin Soe’s vehicle was stopped in a clearing. As the passenger door was opened, Lin Soe blinked at a flashlight shining on his face.

“Where do you come from?” asked a Thai official with bloodshot eyes. “Or?”

Lin Soe remained silent, leaning in the truck, pinching the corners of his elbows. He didn’t understand what the man was saying in Thai.

Days after the Myanmar military announced conscription, long, winding lines formed outside foreign embassies in Yangon. People were killed in stampedes outside a passport office in Mandalay, local officials said, while factories and businesses across the country reported parts of their workforce apparently disappearing overnight on the next day. In interviews, 14 migrants in Thailand who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of deportation described why and how they fled.

Two cousins, aged 21 and 22, said they traveled 700 kilometers from their town of Pathein to Sangkhla Buri, where they hid for hours in rubber plantations before being arrested by smugglers on motorbikes .

A 22-year-old, whose older brother was a gunner in a rebel army, said he left his mother alone in his hometown of Taikkyi because he did not want to fight on the other side of the war .

A 14-year-old said he was sent across the border alone because he was tall for his age, and his family feared that when military officials came knocking, they wouldn’t care about him. fact that he was just a teenager.

The military does need more troops as it faces a multi-pronged offensive and plummeting morale, said Richard Horsey, senior adviser on Myanmar for the International Crisis Group. But the project also represents a way for the junta to make it known that it intends to fight its way out of this crisis, he said.

The junta did not respond to The Post’s inquiries. Speaking to a state television channel in February, spokesman General Zaw Min Tun said: “What we want to say is that national defense is not just the soldier’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of citizens in all regions of the country.

For months after the junta announced the conscription, Lin Soe was reluctant to leave, he said.

He hated the junta. He had seen soldiers in his hometown, in the southern district of Mawlamyine, stealing motorbikes from people at gunpoint, and he had watched countless videos on his phone of soldiers attacking civilians. The idea of ​​fighting for the army repelled him, he said. But he had never lived away from home before and his family relied on his income as a construction worker. If he left, he told himself, his mother and grandmother would be defenseless.

As his town emptied of young men, Lin Soe stayed, he said. Then, in April, when military officials began going door to door collecting information on the family, his mother called him into a room. He had to leave, she said.

Lin Soe stumbled out of the truck, followed by four male relatives who had been trapped in the back seat with him. Thai authorities had apprehended 26 migrants in three vehicles. There were children piled on top of each other and women saying it had been days since they had eaten anything.

There has always been a flow of migrants through Sangkhla Buri, usually workers from border towns trying to find work in Thailand, said district investigator Somchai Gaysorn, 49. But a few months ago, he said, he started seeing something different: clusters of babies, sweet-faced, callous-free teenagers. They came from deep within Myanmar, and when caught, they often broke down crying.

Thai authorities did not respond to questions seeking official figures, but said the vast majority of migrants cross the border undetected. Thai authorities have said they are not cracking down on migrants at the request of the Myanmar government. Thailand, after a decade of military rule, elected a civilian government last year that sought to distance itself from Myanmar’s ruling junta and engage with its opponents.

The Post’s Rebecca Tan reported in May from the Thailand-Myanmar border, where tens of thousands of men fled after Myanmar announced conscription. (Video: Rebecca Tan, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Somchai had called the deputy district chief, Nutchpat Ngamsiirote, who swerved his truck into the clearing. Nutchpat ordered the soldiers to herd the migrants under a tree, then stood in front of them while a local reporter took out his phone to record. “Today we arrested almost 30 illegal migrants,” Nutchpat said, his voice echoing amid the babies’ cries.

“We will blame those who are undocumented,” Nutchpat continued. “And then we’ll kick them all out.”

Even when migrants arrive in Thailand, they lead a difficult life in the shadows. Without documentation, they cannot attend school or seek formal employment, and many end up working illegally. in seafood or garment factories, where they are exploited by employers, workers’ rights groups say.

A 20-year-old who goes by his last name, Soung, said that before fleeing conscription in March, he was a student at Yangon University and planned to become a software engineer. Today, he walks the streets of a Bangkok suburb, asking strangers if he can do odd jobs for money. Still, Soung said, he would not return to Myanmar unless forced to.

To stem the exodus, the junta issued an order to the Labor Ministry last month banning men aged 23 to 31 from seeking work permits abroad.

But as long as there are ways to leave Myanmar, people will leave, United Nations migration officials say. “It is not possible for us to stop this,” said Rangsiman Rome, a Thai lawmaker who heads a national security committee. Millions of people are already in Thailand, he said. “And more are coming.”

On the day he was arrested, at 10 a.m., Lin Soe and the other migrants were taken to the police station. While waiting in the heat for his turn to be questioned, Lin Soe thinks about his future. Under the junta’s conscription law, those who refuse to serve face up to five years in prison. If he was sent back to Mawlamyine, he worried, the military would not only punish him: they would also punish his family. “They kill and torture,” Lin Soe said. “I saw it with my own eyes.”

But he wouldn’t need to return to his hometown, those sitting around him said. Once a Thai judge issued deportation orders to police, they would only take the migrants as far as the border and drop them off there. From there, one migrant said, they could try to cross again.

Lin Soe listened and began to make a plan. There was still a way out. He would try again, he said.

Wilawan Watcharasakwet and Yan Naing contributed to this report.

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